So, what was Korean about the Haewooso garden?

As I looked at the Haewooso garden for the first time, of course the first thing I noticed was the structure at the back of the 4m x 5m plot – the privy after which the Haewooso garden is named. It was set at the end of a rustic path which looked as if it had been there for ever – ceramic rooftiles were embedded in the path, adding to the timeless look of the place. The only feature which perhaps felt less than natural were the coloured tile fragments also embedded in the path – perhaps a signature of the designer, who is also known for her ceramic sculpture. Either side of the path were borders which looked like they could have been teleported from a natural English woodland. And the plants – hostas, sedums, ivies, ferns, grasses and various perennials – all looked very English.

Beside the nicely unkempt path is a basin for washing hands
Beside the nicely unkempt path is a basin for washing hands

I mentioned this to the garden’s designer, Jihae Hwang, when I had a chance to meet her towards the end of the week at Chelsea. “My aim was to create a natural garden. And nature is the same the world over” she explained. This led into a discussion of what typefies a Korean garden compared to, say, a Japanese or Chinese garden. A difficult subject because for every generalisation there are many exceptions to prove it wrong. But while a Chinese garden might have flair and creativity, a Japanese garden aims to confine and control nature. A Korean garden typically treats the natural landscape as part of the garden, and aims to change as little as possible that nature has provided.

A hole in the side wall containing seeds as food for mice or birds
A hole in the side wall containing seeds as food for mice or birds

This trait was certainly demonstrated to the full in the Haewooso garden: the moss on the rocks brought up from Devon was undisturbed; the fallen branches which emerged from the ground cover looked as if they had been there for ever; and even the dry stone wall which formed the boundary of the garden looked artfully neglected.

Little details emerged from the garden the more you looked at it. A little tube made of two roofing tiles had been inserted into the right hand wall, and inside were placed some seeds to feed mice or birds; in the left hand wall there was a small lantern standing in a little alcove, which the mother of the house would light when saying a prayer for healthy children.

The privy itself was constructed in Korea using recycled timbers and roof-tiles from an 80-year old hanok, seemingly only selecting the most irregularly-shaped pieces of wood.

Taraxacum coreanum Nakai
Taraxacum coreanum Nakai (before travelling through UK Customs)

“I’ve never seen a border packed with Korean plants before,” said the BBC presenter in reviewing the Haewooso garden. Well, a lot of the plants were sourced in England, with only about 30% coming from Korea. Part of the problem, of course, is getting plants through Customs. Only one Korean flower managed to get through (a humble dandelion-like plant called Taraxacum coreanum Nakai – 흰민들레 (image source)), and it only survived the first day at Chelsea before its flower-head withered.

For the record, the other key plants brought in from Korea were all flowerless: Syringa dilatata, Duchesnea chrysantha, Panax ginseng NEES, Sedum sarmentosum Bunge, Hosta Longipes, Plantago asiatica and Codonopsis lanceolata. The plant list for the garden as a whole extended to around 50 plants.

There were a couple of medicinal plants there, including plantago asiatica, good for stomach ailments.

The haewooso had the authenticity of a rustic A-frame resting against it
The haewooso had the authenticity of a rustic A-frame resting against it

But perhaps more important than all the detail is the central concept of the Haewooso garden itself. It was certainly a risk to choose an outside privy as a centrepiece for a Chelsea garden. In fact Jihae Hwang heard that the RHS committee that review the applications had thought that the Haewooso garden must be some kind of joke. But Bob Sweet, the RHS shows organiser, had an insight into the sincerity of the proposal, and gave it his backing.

The philosophy is the garden is that, walking through nature to empty your body, you also empty your mind. Entering the privy, through an entrance which is just over a metre high, you have to bow in order to get inside, thus humbling yourself. The product of the privy has a functional purpose in providing fertiliser for the fields. And when you emerge from the privy, you emerge refreshed. To quote from one of the Park Wan-suh passages I put up last week:

And while the outhouse itself was fun, after a lengthy stay within it the outside world took on an extraordinarily beautiful cast. The sunlight glittering on the green in the kitchen garden, the grasses and trees, the tiny streams – all this was as dazzling as if we’d never seen any of it before.

Ask any Korean who grew up in the countryside, and they will tell you about their mother’s vegetable patch and the outside privy beyond. It was not so long ago, after all, that English houses had outside loos. But walking to a Haewooso through a leafy garden knowing that the output would be recycled into nature makes the bodily function more meaningful. It is probably too much to expect a Brit to get the philosophy of emptying the mind, but the natural setting and wealth of fascinating detail in Jihae Hwang’s garden gave plenty of enjoyment – a peaceful, quiet space with natural beauty.

Haewooso: picture courtesy of the RHS website
Haewooso: picture courtesy of the RHS website

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